California drought teaches us to grow more of our food

jdodge@theolympian.comFebruary 13, 2014 

A contingent of 48 students and two faculty members from The Evergreen State College’s yearlong Ecological Agriculture class just returned from a two-week road trip into the heart of California drought country.

The drought, entering its fourth year with no signs of letting up, is all that farmers they met could talk about from Northern California to the Salinas Valley and beyond, TESC adjunct faculty member TJ Johnson said.

Normal crop plans for 2014 are flying out the window as some California producers scrap water-dependent crops such as melons, tomatoes and corn for less thirsty ones, said Johnson, an active member of the South Sound local food security movement.

Some ranchers are culling their herds because they can’t grow enough hay to feed their livestock. The lack of hay is forcing some organic ranchers to switch to conventional feed.

“California farmers are in dire straits,” Johnson said. “We, as consumers, need to expect higher food prices.”

California grows about 50 percent of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. The top 10 California commodities in 2012 were:

milk, $6.9 billion; grapes, $4.4 billion; almonds, $4.3 billion; nursery plants, $3.5 billion; cattle and calves, $3.3 billion; strawberries, $1.9 billion; lettuce, $1.45 billion; walnuts, $1.35 billion; hay, $1.2 billion; and tomatoes, $1.2 billion.

The driest stretch since California became a state in 1850 is grabbing national attention. President Barack Obama heads for Fresno and the Central Valley on Friday for a pep talk and promise of federal aid to California’s parched farms and cities.

More than political promises, California needs rain, and lots of it, to avoid a serious collapse of its farm economy. The trouble is, the long-range weather forecast for the next several months suggests more of the same — above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation. Despite a welcome storm last weekend in Northern California, the Golden State is on pace for another dry year, perhaps as bad or worse than 2013.

Even more ominous is the story told by studies of tree rings, sediments and other natural evidence that suggests California has had multiple droughts over geologic time that lasted 10 to 20 years, plus two mega-droughts — one in 850 that lasted 240 years and another 50 years later that hung on 180 years.

Water experts studying the California drought are quick to point out that if the current drought did last another 10 years, farmers would bear the brunt of it. Cities would suffer, too, but they would have more financial resources to secure what water was available.

In the long run, the California drought suggests that this country needs to diversify its food supply whenever and wherever it can.

“We have too many agricultural eggs in the California basket,” noted Lucas Patzek, Washington State University’s Thurston County Extension director. “In the long haul, we need to shift production so we’re not so dependent on one region.”

The California drought is a cautionary tale that points to the need for local food systems to feed local people, Johnson said.

“We need to produce more food locally and develop import substitution strategies,” he said.

However, 30 percent of the fresh produce sold at the Olympia Food Co-op is grown locally, Johnson said.

“We do need to diversify our food supply,” agreed Tenino rancher Fred Colvin. “It makes sense to do more here in South Sound and in the Pacific Northwest.”

In the short haul, Johnson said the California drought is just another reason for South Sound residents to grow more of their own food and source and preserve local food supplies, everything from beef to tomatoes.

I asked Trevor DeWispelaere, produce manager for Ralph’s Thriftway and Bayview Thriftway, his take on the California drought. In the winter, the stores rely on California for 60 percent of their fresh produce, a figure that drops to 30 percent in the summer when Northwest farms are in full production. He didn’t seem too worried, noting that weather is always playing tricks on farmers.

“If there’s a produce shortage in California, our vendors will start moving to other markets — Arizona, Mexico — it’s very, very competitive,” he said. But our rule here is to always try to purchase as close to home as possible.”

To some degree, Pacific Northwest producers could benefit from California crop woes. For example, Pacific Northwest berries could be in a better market position this year, Patzek said.

Then again, I’ve never been a big fan of California strawberries. I’d rather wait a little longer for the local strawberry crop to ripen, drought or no drought.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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